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How India's diversity inspired Shankar Mahadevan to make music

Right before a concert that celebrates music from across India, Shankar Mahadevan lets us in on destinations traversed and the music he made while crossing each

Visuals of the snowcapped Hima-layas and the scenic Kashmir Valley flash across your mind each time you watch Preity Zinta, adorned in gold headgear, dance to Bhumro Bhumro in Mission Kashmir. On the other hand, you can feel the coarse desert sand under your feet when you hear the rustic foot-tapping Baawre in Luck By Chance. Both hits, composed by Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, find roots in Indian folk music, whether it is the original Kashmiri track, Bumbro that was re-jigged for the Hrithik Roshan starrer or the Rajasthani beats that the actor matches steps to, in the 2009 film.

Also read: Give Bollywood twist to classical music, says Shankar Mahadevan

Maharashtrian folk vocalist Professor Ganesh Chandanshive, a collaborating artiste, twirls to vocals by Shankar Mahadevan at the premiere of My Country, My Music concert last year. Mahadevan will lead the second edition of the concert in Mumbai over this weekend, to celebrate music from across  the country right before Republic Day
Maharashtrian folk vocalist Professor Ganesh Chandanshive, a collaborating artiste, twirls to vocals by Shankar Mahadevan at the premiere of My Country, My Music concert last year. Mahadevan will lead the second edition of the concert in Mumbai over this weekend, to celebrate music from across  the country right before Republic Day

"Most film music, considered the lifeline of the masses, is influenced by Folk traditions," believes music composer and singer Shankar Mahadevan, who is set to showcase India’s rich musical diversity at a concert titled My Country, My Music, this weekend, ahead of the Republic Day, at National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA). He will lead an ensemble of 22 musicians, including Rajasthani folk singer Maame Khan and Chennai-based South Indian vocalist Manikya Vinayakam. Mahadevan will bring to fore diverse folk forms from across India including Waris Shah’s seminal Punjabi folk poem Heer and the Assamese Bihu music, and blend them with popular Hindi film music.

Shankar Mahadevan at a performance in Pune
Shankar Mahadevan at a performance in Pune

Mahadevan, whose 20-year-long musical repertoire also includes songs in Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam and Marathi, says, "In our country, we have a song for every occasion — whether, it is birth, death, engagement, wedding, harvest, drought or even a locust attack on a farm. The real essence is captured by folk music rather than Classical music, as the latter has to be learnt. The idea is to consolidate talent and showcase the country’s music legacy, rather than just a show that looks like a tourism advertisement for India."

Isha Sharvani and Hrithik Roshan in the Rajasthani folk fusion number, Baawre in Luck By ChanceIsha Sharvani and Hrithik Roshan in the Rajasthani folk fusion number, Baawre in Luck By Chance

Having tasted success at the group’s premiere performance at Esplanade auditorium in Singapore last year, Mahadevan recalls, "We were stunned at the content that we presented. Though you know that the country has a rich musical heritage, when you see all of it together on the stage, you realise that there’s a lot to be proud of."

On: January 23 and 24, 6.30 pm
At: Jamshed Bhabha Theatre, NCPA, Nariman Point.
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States and sounds

Rajasthan
Mahadevan picks Jaipur and Jodhpur as his favourite family holiday destinations in the culturally rich desert state.

Mahadevan with Rajasthani folk artiste Maame Khan. Pic courtesy/Artecompass and Nin9 Photography, Singapore
Mahadevan with Rajasthani folk artiste Maame Khan. Pic courtesy/Artecompass and Nin9 Photography, Singapore

"You can sing Rajasthani folk music easily for five hours at a stretch. They even have a song for a fateful event where the cucumber farm gets infected by locusts," he informs.

West Bengal and Assam
Besides Rabindra Sangeet, Baul music and classical Bengali folk numbers make West Bengal a must-visit for the musically inclined traveller. Further up, Assam’s folk sounds feature Bihu (a form of music derived from the popular harvest festival), Kamrupiya (a form heard in the Kamrup district of lower Assam) and Goalpariya (from the Goalpara district of Assam). "Bihu is the most explored; it is also more melodious, interactive and foot-tapping than the rustic Kamrupiya," shares artiste Anindita Paul, who will sing Mahadevan-composed bhatiali number, usually heard among boatmen along the Brahmaputra river, and a Bihu
song too.

Kashmir
Rediscover The Valley’s beauty through Kashmiri folk songs. "Kashmiri folk soundscape is more acoustic with the use of rubab and santoor," says collaborating vocalist Rasika Shekar.

Kerala
"Kerala is also one of my favourite family holiday destinations in India and the main reason is to eat the fish of the coastal state," laughs Mahadevan, adding, "Keralites are so culturally rooted. On a festive day, you find will every single person in their traditional attire, not as a way to show off but as a way of life which is unaffected by the rest of the world.

A boat race in progress on Kerala’s backwaters
A boat race in progress on Kerala’s backwaters

I am trying to bring that essence in the concert too." If you’ve not had a chance to experience the boat races of Kerala, watch the group emulate the highs, lows and the excitement of one at the concert.

My playlist

"I listen to diverse music. I remember a seven-hour journey with Zakir Hussain from Boston to New York.

Mahadevan, Zakir Hussain, U Shrinivas, John McLaughlin and V Selvaganesh of Remember Shakti
Mahadevan, Zakir Hussain, U Shrinivas, John McLaughlin and V Selvaganesh of Remember Shakti

We heard everything from Ella Fitzgerald to Frank Sinatra, Pink Floyd, Shakti (band) and Nikhil Banerjee."

Mapping Mahadevan’s music
While one would assume that most tracks are churned out of a studio, Mahadevan has composed some of his most popular tunes on the road. For instance, the hook tune of Woh Ladki Hai Kahan in Dil Chahta Hai came to him in the winding ghats of Khandala. "We were with Javed (Akhtar) saab on our way to Ritesh Sidhwani’s house to compose tracks for Dil Chahta Hai and it was pouring. The car’s movements in the winding ghats inspired the tune and we thought, why not have a musical hook rather than a vocal one," he recalls.

Saif Ali Khan and Sonali Kulkarni in Woh Ladki Hai Kahan from Dil Chahta Hai

On the other hand, the SEL troika created the memorable Mitwa from Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna in the sunshine state of Goa. "When you step into Goa, you become dysfunctional. For two days, we just chilled and enjoyed seafood. Then, out of the blue, the track came to us and we composed it there."

As fate would have it, the words ‘Kal ho naa ho’ were coined at German Bakery in Pune. "Can you believe it? We composed the tune of a song called kal ho naa ho in a place which got blown up after a few years," rues Mahadevan, adding, "Not to forget, Breathless was composed in the most scenic locations of all — when stuck in a traffic jam at Juhu."

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